il me manque

Though I love France, there are still things I miss about England. One of those things is Chinatown. Manchester has a huge and vibrant Chinatown, sandwiched between the gay village and Spring Gardens. You can only get to it via side streets and you could easily miss it totally, despite the fact it is huge, complete with shops, banks, supermarkets, bakeries, bookies… and, of course, restaurants. And, of course, the obligatory Chinese New Year celebrations, with real Chinese dancers.

img116You might laugh at me saying ‘real Chinese dancers’ but I am always disappointed by the fact that the New Year procession dragon is always manned by Westerners.

My favourite Chinese restaurant in Manchester is Pacific, which serves Chinese food on one floor and Thai food on the next. It’s about as trendy as you can get with white table cloths and beautiful orchids. Across George St is its opposite, a fantastic little place with about ten tables and as much plastic Chinese memorabilia as you can get. Yang Sing is always popular – and always packed – since its foray into media. In fact, I have a picture of Kurt Hummel, a.k.a Chris Colfer, my favourite Glee actor, coming out of Yang Sing. That’s how popular it is. But there’s something for everyone here. There are all-you-can-eat buffets, cheap food, fusion food, high end food, aspirational food, soul food…

img210Not only that, there are five or six really good Japanese restaurants, including Sapporo Teppenyaki, my favourite, and there are noodle bars and chains-a-go-go, including Tampopo and Wagamama, as well as some less franchisey places.

Not only that, but I would guess that pretty much everywhere in urban England has access to a great Chinese takeaway. You can also buy lots of Chinese products in your usual supermarket, and if you’ve got a Ken Hom cookbook and he says you need black bean sauce and rice vinegar, you can get it. No problem. Most supermarkets do a Chinese meal deal selection of Chinese food as well.

So…

Rural France…

Well…

there’s a handful of Asian restaurants in Angoulême, including our favourite King Long. But a King Long experience (no smutty laughter, please…) is very different from the English experience.

Let’s start with the fact that you can get boiled eggs and lettuce, cucumber and tomato if you feel like it in a typical Chinese buffet in small-town France. Piece of baguette to go with your noodles? Why not?

Well, why not for me is a pretty big why not. Yang Sing don’t offer you a piece of Warburton’s medium sliced white bread along with your Kung Pao chicken. You can’t get a prawn cocktail alongside your spring rolls. You don’t find a typical Bernie Inn slice of melon and a cherry in a Chinese buffet, just in case it’s all a bit wild for you.

Let’s get something straight. I know that Chinese food in China is not like Chinese food in the rest of the world. But, wherever I have travelled, Chinese food outside of China has been relatively similar. Call it the McDonald’s effect. Greek black bean pork is remarkably similar to Spanish black bean pork. Sweet and sour is always sweet and sour whether you’re in Amsterdam or Antwerp.

So why is it that French Chinese food is so… different?

For starters, the hottest thing you’ll find is the beef salad. The ‘sweet and sour’ pork is in actual fact porc au caramel which is essentially pork in caramel. Nice, certainly, but no kick. They have noodles, they have rice. They have dim sum and spring rolls. But… they have no spice. On the other hand, you can buy Chinese-style frogs’ legs, which is weird. It’s weird because the frogs’ legs probably come from China (France are the biggest importer of Chinese frozen frogs’ legs) and it’s weird because frogs’ legs are probably more like a lot of the real Chinese food you get anyway. Forget beef and pork and the likes.  However, despite the cultural adaptation, chilis are not really on the menu. Or anything spicy.

Another example… wasabi. I knew wasabi in Japan that could melt your nasal cavities and burn your tongue out. Here, you could probably eat it by the spoonful and think it was just a mild green paste.

Now, the French like Japanese food. Or, at least they like to pretend they do, giving all those Michelin stars away to Japanese chefs. Sushi is fine. Sushi is great. Let’s face it though: sushi is essentially a tuna sandwich. Fish and carbs. Maybe with some cucumber.

But, as I learned in Japan, Japanese food is infrequently spicy. Tasty, sure; spicy, no.

So Japanese food is not that much of a diversion from French food as it turns out. It appeals to the flaccid French palate.

When I want a bit of hot and spicy, though, I’m stuck. It’s just not… French. In England, our local chippy did a hot and spicy chicken soup that would clear your sinuses in five seconds flat. Here, the Asian soups taste like soapy water. I’m sad about that. I blame this on the French palate, not on the Asian restaurants, because they all kind of taste like that  outside Paris and Lyon. It’s precisely the same reason that the only place chili can be found is in a paste in the ethnic food aisle. Sometimes – sometimes – inner city supermarkets or produce markets have them, but only if you hunt.

However, I am a good cook. I don’t mind making sauces and stuff. I make a mean hot and spicy sauce. Finding real Chinese ingredients that don’t cost five hundred pounds is a little more difficult, though I confess my local Leclerc now has four metres of noodles, pastes and soy sauce. Just to put that in perspective, it has twenty metres of Brie and Camembert. I have to make do. I make a sauce from garlic, onions, ginger, ketchup, plum jelly (what? you don’t put fruity jam in your sweet and sour?!) star anise, fennel seeds, brown sugar, cumin seeds, soy sauce, orange juice and Nam Pla. Oh, and two teaspoons of home-made hot chili sauce. Because trying to find a non-weak-sauce sweet and sour is like trying to find the impossible. Forget black beans and yellow beans and the likes. Lemongrass? Forget it.

My nearest Asian supermarket is 120km away. I keep meaning to go, and I will do one day, but until that time, I make do with plum jelly spicy sauce, LJ style, and boiled eggs in the buffet. Strange as the Chinese experience is in France, it is more than welcome. Usually it’s my only excursion, food-wise, and I very much look forward to it. Plus, they do the best ice-cream.

Don’t tell me your local Chinese restaurant doesn’t have ice-cream? I know. It was weird to me at first.

Anyway, beggars cannot be choosers, and I love King Long anyway. Whether I’d eat there if it were in England, I don’t know. The French obviously love their work because it’s packed every day. The sushi goes first, and that tells you all you need to know. One day, I’m going to empty a bottle of real wasabi paste into the condiments placed at the side of the sushi. But, do you know what? I bet those French people don’t even normally try it. It’d just be wasted.

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7 thoughts on “il me manque

  1. I assume your nearest Asian supermarket is the Paris Store in Tours nord? Or is it the Asia Store in Poitiers? If it’s either of these and you are visiting, let me know and we could meet up — at the store!

    France imports frog legs from China because Edible Frogs are a protected species now in France, so you cannot harvest or farm them. But yes, the only place you ever see frogs legs on the menu in France is in Chinese buffets. And I think your theory about why Asian food is the way it is here is spot on. If you are in Paris, try going to Belleville — you may get on better there — big Asian community, good restaurants, several big Asian supermarkets. (and as an Australian, by Asian I mean Chinese and SE Asian, not Indian.)

  2. This was so interesting to read. I would go nuts without a bit of spice! We just made sushi yesterday, including wicked wasabi. Yum.

  3. So funny! We bought curry in a tiny specialist shop in Lannion and the woman warned us very strongly that we should only use a tiny bit on the tip of a knife. Needless to say, it took about half the tub to get any flavour at all. They must take all the hotness out for the French market!

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